Two years ago, while Zhang Yimou was filming last summer's surprise hit Hero, he fell in love. ''We were shooting in [China's] Dunhuang region, where there are these extensive Buddhist grottoes with cave paintings,'' he recalls in his native Mandarin during a recent trip to Manhattan. ''When I noticed one that was very rich in blues, greens, and golds, I pointed it out and said, 'This is what I want for the color scheme of House of Flying Daggers.' And then, because those paintings were done in the Tang dynasty, that's when we decided to set the film.'' Designing an entire film around a trio of colors? It may sound risky, but not if you're director Zhang Yimou, who boasts three Academy Award-nominated films. On critics' hot lists since his directorial debut, 1988's gritty rural drama Red Sorghum, the thematically mercurial filmmaker behind Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and Shanghai Triad (1995) is famous for his cinematic spectacles, and Daggers is no exception. Continuing his shift from period dramas and neorealist rural portraits to pure entertainment, the 54-year-old director follows up Hero with a bouquet of elaborate aquamarine costumes, emerald-misted bamboo forests, and golden russet foliage. Daggers, with its straightforward romantic drama, is different from its predecessor's flash-back-heavy narrative and primary color scheme, but both plots were actually hatched and scripted at the same time (Zhang and his writing partners picked their favorite two ideas after brainstorming four). They also share a leading lady in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Ziyi Zhang.
In Daggers, the petite actress stars as Mei, a blind courtesan who is suspected of being a member of the rebellious House of Flying Daggers, and Asian megastars Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro play the two local captains who both lust after her. Shot in China and the Ukraine, the film is a showcase for breathtaking vistas and some intense flying-dagger-on-sharpened-bamboo-stakes action. It's also a showcase for Zhang's obsession.
The director had long been eager to film a tribute to the wuxia or martial arts movie (in fact, he was already planning his own films when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger became an international success). But he knew that the extensive financing for such an epic endeavor with its exotic locales, dynastic costumes and sets, and huge stunt crews couldn't be recuperated purely from a Chinese audience. ''We definitely needed a foreign market to recover our investment,'' he explains. ''So I had to think about the overseas situation and whether Western audiences would understand the story.'' (Ultimately, the $20 million bill for Daggers was split between a Hong Kong-based production company and a Beijing-based distributor.)
His investment in the genre has paid off handsomely. Hero earned an estimated $30 million in China, making it the country's highest-grossing native film ever. During its late-summer North American run, the movie raked in another $53.6 million. (In contrast, Zhang's next-highest-grossing film, 1991 Oscar nominee Lantern, earned a mere $2.5 million.)